The switch from a 16,000 Tory majority to a Lib Dem majority of 8,000 in Chesham and Amersham is a gamechanger. HS2 was a special factor, though even the Lib Dems did not say they would cancel it. But there was real anxiety that the Tory planning changes would threaten local communities. The Tories had a good candidate, but Peter Fleet has since said that many of his electors were concerned that the government’s mammoth spending programmes would lead to higher taxes.
The result should come as little surprise. The 2019 local elections gave a clear sense of where things were headed, when a huge number of Tory seats were unexpectedly lost in Chelmsford, Chichester, East Cambridgeshire, Guildford, South Oxfordshire, Winchester, Surrey Heath, Woking and Spelthorne.
Recent government decisions have been taken with little consideration for their political consequences. Overconfident and complacent with gains like Hartlepool and possibly Batley and Spen in the north, the party overlooked the south. More houses must be built, but the government will need to reassure many Tory shire MPs that their seats are not going to be overwhelmed. Country towns, like my old seat of Dorking, got the balance right between new and old. The new houses were never going to disturb the balance of the community, unlike other South London towns which became a huge suburban sprawl.
Another group of former Tory voters will be the farming community and those who rely on the industry. The Australian trade deal will lead to more lamb and beef imports and will be followed by trade deals with New Zealand, the US and Argentina. As I wake up early, I always listen at quarter to six to Farming Today. For the last two months it has been agonising to hear distressed and anxious farmers.
Another group that will not vote Tory is unemployed and underemployed graduates. Nor will the 109,000 16 to 24-year-olds who have been unemployed in the last year, and nor will their parents and grandparents. Youth unemployment is now 14.4 per cent and in disadvantaged areas it is over 20 per cent. No minister in the last two years has made a speech about youth unemployment.
The government’s devotion to free trade is now going to hit the red wall as well as the blue. By the end of this month, half of the UK’s steel products will have had trade protections removed. Meanwhile, Europe has decided to keep protections for another three years. British steel will be even more exposed.
Holly Mumby-Croft, the Tory MP for Scunthorpe, has said: ‘There is a real risk that the UK will be increasingly vulnerable to imports if steel safeguards are removed.' Is anybody in the cabinet aware that the steel plant in her constituency could be badly hit or even closed? Someone should remind the Prime Minister that after Robert Peel converted to free trade in 1846, the Tories were out of power for over 20 years.
We now have two chairmen of the Conservative party. One is Ben Elliot of whom I know nothing — though I believe he is a friend of the Prime Minister — but over the last three months he has been notable for his absence and silence. The party now needs one single chairman. They must be a leading politician who can stand up to the PM. Margaret Thatcher had such figures as Cecil Parkinson, Norman Tebbit and Norman Fowler. John Major had Chris Patten. Each party chairman, including myself, could ask to see the Prime Minister within two hours if they had concerns over the position of the party. I rather doubt whether the present incumbents have that availability. The new chairman must spend the next two years visiting every vulnerable Conservative seat, to rally the local party, and put it in good campaigning shape — because that is what the Lib Dems will be doing.
The Prime Minister must not take the Tory party for granted. Too many people are saying the Tories will be in power for ten years or more. That is not how politics works. We have to win back the Tory voters which we are losing.